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Pssst: passing on a few Paris secrets

Times Staff Writer

A few months after I moved to Paris two years ago, I wrote a Her World column about some of my favorite places to see and things to do in the City of Light -- not the Louvre or Luxembourg Gardens, but little secrets you get to know only by walking the same block every day or by going out for milk and happening upon something wonderful.

That’s the Paris I’m finally getting to know, and it’s apparently inexhaustible. Paris constantly gives me gifts, though I like the French word for it better: cadeaux.

At this time of year, it only seems fair to share. So here are more Paris secrets:

Latin Quarter: The streets around Place St. Michel are so densely packed that even my detailed pocket atlas of Paris can’t do them justice. You really have to squint to find the Rue des Grands Degres, which parallels the Seine between Rue Maitre Albert and Rue de la Bucherie.

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At its west end is a little square with a view -- really just a peek -- of Notre Dame Cathedral’s east-facing apse, tightly framed by Latin Quarter facades. There are two good restaurants on the square: Degres de Notre Dame, 011-33-1-55-42-88-88, and La Maison, 011-33-1-43-29-73-57.

The proprietor of La Maison used to have a brindle mastiff, beloved by regular customers, but it died about a year ago. By the time I found the restaurant and the square -- thanks to a tip from L.A. readers -- La Maison had a new mascot, a mastiff puppy no bigger than a coconut, which effortlessly stole the show from the great Gothic cathedral across the river.

Two pools: The myth that Paris seldom gets hot in the summer is a lie masterminded to cover up the city’s general lack of air conditioning. My apartment was so stultifying in August that I once resorted to a water park on the southwest edge of the city, complete with slides, fake beaches and wave pools.

Almost every arrondissement -- or district -- has a public pool, but they are often crowded. Besides, Parisians swim laps like revolutionaries, with no regard for the keep-to-the-right rule. Nevertheless, I often go to the glass-roofed Piscine Pontoise in the 5th arrondissement. It got me through the worst heat of the summer.

But one August weekend, friends came to Paris and stayed at the elegant Hotel Le Bristol, 011-33-1-53-43-43-00, www.hotel-bristol.com, on the Right Bank at 112 Rue du Faubourg St. Honore.

It opened in 1925 and soon became a hub for fashion photographers. These days, a Coke from the mini-bar costs $8, so I could never afford to stay there. But my friends were on an expense account and asked me over for a dip in the Bristol’s rooftop pool.

It’s the size of a postage stamp, but -- ooh la la -- lined with teak and trompe l’oeil murals that make you think you’re on a yacht headed for the French Riviera. Then, too, outside is a rooftop sundeck with wonderful views of Sacre-Coeur.

Taxis: Getting a cab in Paris frustrates many Americans. You can’t hail a cab at any street corner, as in New York. No matter if you’re a penniless clochard or the president of Renault, you have to go to one of the taxi ranks at major intersections.

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There are many ways to get to the airports outside Paris by taxi. I favor the company Taxi G7, whose number -- 011-33-1-47-39-47-39, www.taxisg7.fr -- I have memorized. G7 cabs almost always show up early at my door and don’t play games about using the meters.

Budget hotel: St. Germain, anchored by a medieval church and twin landmark cafes, Les Deux Magots and Flore, is one of the more pleasing and pricey Left Bank neighborhoods. Happily, nearby is the budget Hotel du Dragon, 36 Rue du Dragon, 011-33-1-45-48-51-05, www.hoteldudragon.com, which I discovered on a visit to the city 10 years ago.

At the time, it was likable, though a little shopworn. But since, the Roy family, which has owned the hotel for five generations, has put care and money into the place, redecorating the rooms in a simple, charming way that preserves such old-fashioned features as sloping ceilings and wood beams.

All 29 rooms now have private baths (some spacious), TVs and telephones, though there is no elevator. Doubles at the front, at about $120, are the roomiest and lightest, with windows yielding onto relatively quiet Rue du Dragon.

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Musee Cernuschi: This is one of the city’s smallest, most distinctive museums, devoted to Asian art, located at 7 Avenue Velasquez; 011-33-1-45-63-50-75, in the shadow of lovely Monceau Park in the Right Bank’s 8th arrondissement. There, visitors find a distinguished collection of painting and sculpture gathered by the Italian-born banker Enrico Cernuschi. In 1871 he embarked on a 16-month trip around the world, stopping in China and Japan, where he acquired almost 5,000 works of art. To display them, he built a mansion in the stylish neighborhood around the park and bequeathed it to the city on his death in 1896.

Renovations completed in 2004 have turned the museum into a tranquil oasis for viewing the collection. Every object -- from a monumental 19th century Japanese Buddha to a set of whimsical, Tang Dynasty female musicians on horseback -- commands admiration.

Bookshop: Catherine Domain sits, surrounded by stacks of maps, magazines and books, at the front desk of Librairie Ulysse, at 26 Rue Saint Louis en L’Ile, 011-33-1-43-25-17-35, www.ulysse.fr. She is a world traveler and member of the prestigious French Societe des Explorateurs, and started the bookshop in 1971. Over the years it has become a meeting place for travelers and headquarters of the Cargo Club, whose members meet on the street outside the shop at 6:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month to talk about seeing the world by tramp steamer.

You could try to browse in the cluttered shop, jammed with new and used, common and arcane travel books in a multitude of languages. But it’s best to ask Madame Domain for what you want, because only she knows the way around her voluminous stock. Besides, if you engage her, she might tell you about her sailing adventures in the South Pacific.

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Quai Voltaire: Across the Pont du Carrousel from the Louvre Museum is the Quai Voltaire, lined by distinguished buildings overlooking the Seine, including No. 27, where French Enlightenment philosopher and literary lion Francois Voltaire died in 1778. Among other works, he wrote “Candide,” lampooning the optimistic 18th century belief that, “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

The ground floor is occupied by Restaurant Le Voltaire, 011-33-1-42-61-17-49, with an expensive, formal dining room on the left that’s open only for dinner. On the right is a small, wood-lined cafe, which I favor for the occasional hot lunch, served on pretty purple flower-patterned house china. Neighborhood gallery owners and Louvre-weary tourists pack the place at midday, drawn by simple but expertly cooked traditional French fare. Popular daily specials such as blanquette de veau and poached salmon, priced at about $15, are always accompanied by a seasonal vegetable; quiche Lorraine never disappoints; and I will long remember a bowl of figs in cream I once had for dessert there.

Cookware: The symbol of E. Dehillerin at 18-20 Rue Coquilliere, 011-33-1-42-36-53-13, www.e-dehillerin.fr, is a copper rooster, which is appropriate because this venerable cooking and kitchen store, opened in 1820, specializes in copper-bottom pots. But that’s just the beginning of the wonders in this packed shop, which looks more like a hardware store than a cookware shop. Floor-to-ceiling shelves contain wire whisks in dozens of sizes, more than 20 varieties of molds for petits four, mallets and meat saws, electric salmon smokers and pepper grinders.

Customers are both casual cooks and professionals. Over the front counter is a photo of the late Julia Child, who was an E. Dehillerin regular. She used to drink Bordeaux wine at the brasserie next door while her purchases were being wrapped. As America’s favorite French chef would say, bon appetit.

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Susan Spano also writes “Postcards From Paris,” which can be read at latimes.com/susanspano.


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